Sustainability with substance – know your risk in relation to environmental claims
Consumers are increasingly eco-conscious and value transparency when buying sustainable products and services. Customers are likely to be swayed by green credentials, however, it is often not clear to consumers whether brands can really substantiate their claims, or whether they are guilty of “greenwashing”.
The term “greenwashing” refers to the marketing spin presented by a company or organisation to present an environmentally public image with claims their products are green, ethical, eco-friendly, or sustainable which cannot be substantiated.
All brands have a responsibility to ensure that any environmental claims made are clear, unambiguous, truthful, accurate, able to be substantiated and do not mislead consumers.
Any sustainability claims should apply across the life cycle of the goods, from manufacture to disposal, and service providers should consider the environmental impact of their services, reducing carbon emissions, greenhouse gas, employing sustainable practices via responsible procurement throughout their supply chain. Any claims must be credible and substantiated. We have set out below our thoughts on common “green” claims, have addressed some certification marks available UK, and touched on B Corp certification.
Common green claims
The following are the most common green claims and those that are most easily mis-represented, commonly falling into the “greenwashing” classification.
Sustainable and clean
Whilst brands may look to legitimise this type of claim, there is no clear definition on what it really means to be sustainable or to be clean.
Guidance published by the United Nations sets out 17 sustainable development goals including factors such as responsible consumption and production, clean water and sanitation and reduced inequalities. Consider these if you want to say that your product is sustainable, however bear in mind that the term is so broad that even meeting these goals may not be sufficient to truly substantiate a “sustainable” claim.
Similarly, the term “clean” is very broad: you should consider whether the supply chain leading to your product is clean in addition to whether the effects of the product are clean.
Given it is not possible to achieve a net zero carbon footprint, question whether any product is truly “sustainable” or “clean”.
The term “recyclable” is easier to substantiate, however if you want to use this term you need to be prepared with evidence that the entire product can be recycled, not just parts of it. Given recycling facilities vary by location, it is also good practice to give consumers as much information as possible on how they should recycle your product packaging.
Certification marks assist consumers in their search for sustainable products, as they inform consumers that a product has complied with certain standards or guarantees some characteristics, and has complied with regulations governing use, testing, supervision, etc.
- The Red Tractor label, which certifies every step of the food journey from farm to pack.
- The FSC logo which aims to improve forestry practices worldwide.
- The Fairtrade Mark, an independent guarantee that disadvantaged producers in the developing world are getting a better deal.
When consumers see these certification marks, they help identify that they are purchasing a product that meets these characteristics. You can apply directly to the owner of each certification mark and if your product meets their criteria, you will be able to use their mark.
Collective trade marks are used to indicate that goods or services originate from members of a particular association. Collective trade marks can be used to promote sustainable development goals, such as associations which support producers from poverty-stricken regions. This is another way to indicate compliance with certain standards.
B Corp certification
B Corp certified companies are becoming increasingly common. B Corp certification indicates that a business is sustainable and ethical, as it verifies that a business is meeting high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. Companies must show that they have attained the highest possible standards across the following five key categories:
- the environment
The B Corp certification process has existed since 2006 but is increasingly understood and valued by consumers as its ethos to use business as a force for good and have a positive impact on society chimes with the current ESG drive. Certification is available for companies who operate for profit in a competitive market and have at least 12 months of operations.
The future for consumers
As more consumers hold brands to account, the onus is on businesses to audit their credentials and their supply chain to ensure any claims they make are legitimately substantiated. Only then can consumers differentiate between brands that are genuinely doing good and those that are greenwashing. That coupled with adequate education for consumers about the legitimising of sustainability claims, should create a clearer marketplace in which we hope to see more sustainability with actual substance.
This article just scratches the surface of this ever-expanding area. Our IP team regularly reviews advertising copy for TV and media; ensuring any environmental and sustainability claim is compliant with the green claims code.
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The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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